Perhaps Putin and the Russians are locked in a stalemate in Ukraine – we hear many victim statements from both sides, but almost no independent corroboration. Still, if you noticed, the Russians are doing pretty well in the south and southeast. What if Putin was do not done, and the British Army Is have to face the Russian forces? So far, the Russians have not deployed their best trained and equipped formations to Ukraine, with the exception of some air assault forces. Various sources estimate that elements of 11 Russian armies or equivalent formations were deployed: First Guards Tank Army, Second, Eighth and Twentieth Guards Combined Arms Armies; Fifth, Thirty-sixth, Forty-first and Fifty-eighth Combined Arms Armies; XXII Corps and elements of the Airborne Forces – not forgetting the Black Sea Fleet and its marines. These formations appear to have committed a total of two full combined arms divisions and two air assault divisions; plus 12 combined arms and specialist brigades and three air assault brigades. This makes an approximate total of 150,000 people. Adding logistics units, artillery and missile troops, and engineers, the commonly quoted figure of 190,000 seems about right.
However, Russian armies, like their Soviet predecessors, use a system of echelons during offensive operations – waves if you will. When the first wave has peaked, run out of steam, or suffered heavy casualties, an echelon change takes place, with the second moving on and resuming the battle. What we see now in Ukraine is the first operational echelon. What and where, then, is the second? This is probably made up of most of what remains of the armies listed above that are still in Russia and subject to being called upon to move. The most important of these are the First and Twentieth Armies, containing many of the best of the Russian army and its most modern equipment. A report indicated that the first GTA had been destroyed by the Ukrainians – unlikely given that only a reconnaissance brigade and two regiments were reported in Ukraine. The rest of the army is probably around Voronezh. Twentieth is likely to be east of Kharkov.
So what are the Russians’ options for employing the next echelon – and behind that, a strategic second echelon? The first possibility is to complete the conquest of Ukraine in whole or in part. Donbass, the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea coasts connecting Russia to Crimea will be absorbed by Russia as autonomous republics; what about the rest? The goal may be to divide Ukraine along the Dnieper line, a natural border. Territory east of the river will be ethnically cleansed, which is already underway, reducing the need for a long and costly counterinsurgency campaign. That would leave a rump Ukraine west of the river, with no industrial capacity and no ports. But this does not square with Putin’s claims that Ukraine East Russia – thus the territory west of the Dnieper could also be occupied, again ethnically cleansed, and, with much of the Ukrainian population gone, held down with a smaller force than would otherwise be needed and which would not require the call-up of large numbers of reservists.
This could be achieved by shifting the main effort from the Kyiv region to the south, combined with diversion or deception. Maskirovka is a well-established Soviet and Russian doctrinal tool. So while we’re all focused on the situation around Kiev and the legendary 40-mile-long stationary convoy (there, perhaps, just to catch the eye), airborne formations cooperating with the Black Sea Fleet envelop Odessa and then, moving through the Russian-occupied region of Transnistria into Moldova east of the Dniester, seize the rest of that country. Despite the casualties, the Russians have plenty of airborne and air assault formations and the planes to lift them, men who only recently intervened decisively in Kazakhstan. Once in command of Moldova – another non-NATO state – the Russians will have achieved a successful strategic envelopment of Kiev and will be positioned to be able to penetrate western Ukraine from the south.
It should also be noted how the Russians use Info Ops for propaganda purposes. For them, the manipulation of facts and truth is as much a weapon as tanks and planes – they coined the phrase agitprop, after all. Anyone who served in the former Yugoslavia would immediately recognize this. The idea of fixing not only military, but also media attention around Kiev while pushing hard elsewhere would be axiomatic for Russian strategic planning, as for the Soviet Union. Let’s not forget that the Ukrainians, trained in the same school, will do the same.
This situation would represent a Russian victory, but at major economic and political costs. Putin’s second option could follow such a victory and reverse the narrative of the past 30 years, of NATO pushing east towards Russia. This narrative was undoubtedly seen in Moscow as a series of insults and provocations from the West: incorporation of the Baltic States, Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland into the EU and NATO; intervention in the Balkans on behalf of Muslims and against Russia’s historical clients, the Serbs; the EU’s cynical guarantee of the coup that toppled Yanukovych, despite his commitments, in 2014; NATO ships in the Black Sea; US support for the construction of the new Ukrainian Navy base in Ochakiv; bilateral arms deliveries to Ukraine by NATO members, more recently the suggestion of planes from Poland, etc. To reverse this narrative, a Russian victory in Ukraine and the capture of Moldova – a remnant of the Soviet empire accidentally separated from the history of mother Russia – would bring Russia closer to Western Europe. It would also serve as a warning to non-aligned nations not to think about EU or NATO membership.
A third option could be for Putin’s best formations to move elsewhere: to establish another land corridor, perhaps – this time with the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad? Such a decision could be in place of or in addition to any other option. Of course, this means violating NATO territory and the inevitable invocation of Article 5. Putin clearly does not fear NATO in the short term, but in the long term, Russia cannot resist the power US military combined with the crushing weight of Western sanctions as well as its economic and financial resources.
The use of nuclear weapons can be ruled out. They are far too inflexible and bring with them the likelihood of massive retaliation. Russia is outmatched by a ratio of at least three to one in nuclear terms, and no Russian leader will risk the destruction of the sacred narod. What should not be overlooked, however, are chemical and even biological weapons: they have already been used in Syria and are certainly part of the weapon load of tactical and operational weapon systems.
Of course, the Russians may fail in Ukraine and lack the ability to deploy more forces. Failure would have a high price for Putin personally – Nikita Khrushchev did not long survive the humiliation of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It would also undoubtedly cause non-aligned countries to move more quickly towards NATO membership and push Russia further into isolation and enmity. So there is no result that looks good.